It has been at the root of division and persecution for centuries, but it seems the white skin of most modern Europeans did not evolve in Europe at all.
Now genetic research has revealed that ancient European populations were dark-skinned for far longer than had originally been thought.
Rather than lightening as early humans migrated north from Africa around 40,000 years ago due to lower levels of sunlight, these first Homo sapiens retained their dark skin colour.
Genetic analysis has shown that hunter gatherers living in Spain up to 8,500 years ago still had dark skin.
It was not until 7,800 years ago, when the first farmers migrated from the Near East through Turkey that two key genes that provide lighter skin appeared.
Around 5,800 years ago the gene variant for SLC45A1 then becomes prevalent, lightening skin colour further.
The results contradict the traditional view that lower sunlight levels in Europe would have favoured lighter skin.
The study also showed that around around 4,800 years ago a group of herders known as the Yamnaya migrated from the stepps between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, carried with them genes for tallness to northern and central Europe.
Read more: How Europeans evolved white skin